Zante, bloody Zante: Sun, sex and the dark side of The Med

Thousands of young Brits flock to the Greek islands each year in search of sun, sex and serious drinking. But as Charlotte Philby finds out, there's a darker underbelly to the revelry
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The Independent Online

It's 2am on the Greek island of Zakynthos, and outside the Cocktails and Dreams nightclub, the party is in full swing. Swarms of excitable Brits stumble between bars and clubs, scuffling and fumbling on their way. But for some the distance proves a little too much, and a girl in a hot-pink bikini seeks refuge against a lamppost. Hers is just one of a string of slumped bodies lining the roadside; while across the street, ambulance workers assist a limp figure on to a stretcher.

Welcome to the resort of Laganas, and its epicentre: a heaving 300m-long strip of neon nightlife. This is a world where inhibitions are well and truly thrown to the wayside, along with a mountain of discarded underwear. If you don't fancy making the journey yourself, and can stomach some pretty uncomfortable viewing, a quick search on YouTube leads straight to the belly of the beast. Among pages of graphic mobile-phone footage, one upload, simply titled "Laganas Women", displays a sequence of wasted Brits gyrating manically in various states of undress, accompanied by the words "this is in every club you go to". You get the picture.

But it has not always been this way. Zakynthos – also known as Zante – was once a sleepy Ionian island, favoured by an altogether milder sort of tourist. With 70 miles of coastline, and golden beaches home to a high population of turtles, this was a place to sit back, unwind and soak up the sun. Until a few years ago, it was Faliraki (in Rhodes) and Malia (in Crete) that were the obvious ports-of-call for Britons with a livelier holiday agenda. But then, according to the Greek National Tourist Office, a concerted police crackdown on anti-social behaviour in these areas rendered Faliraki and Malia less appealing. And so, the resort of Laganas (affectionately known as "Slaganas") – and to a lesser extent, its neighbour Argasi – stepped in. And as you can see from as Jocelyn Bain Hogg's photographs, taken over the course of the summer, it has certainly found its audience. Last year alone, Zakynthos attracted 300,000 UK holidaymakers, most of whom were under 30, with many still in their teens, away from home for the first time. With cheap package deals regularly including alcohol in the price, it is easy to see how things can soon turn rather messy.

This summer, the antics of tourists in Laganas have been subject to heavy criticism by the Greek authorities. A stream of headlines revealed the sleazy events unfolding in a resort where tour operators offer "non-stop partying" and "wild entertainment well into the night". As well as the obvious consequences of combining a high number of excited young people with a hell of a lot of very cheap and often low-quality booze – the minor street brawls and general rowdiness that barely raises eyebrows these days – a more sinister picture has emerged.

Last month, nine British women faced charges of prostitution, having taken part in an "oral sex competition" at Laganas beach. And this was not an isolated incident. While British tourism is a major boost to the local economy, the reputation of certain resorts impacts significantly on all of Zakynthos – if not Greece.

It only takes one night out on the main strip to see what the fuss is about. Yet in official facts and figures, the situation is less clear. The Greek Embassy has released a comparative study (based on data provided in two reports from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) entitled "British Behaviour Abroad". One contains figures obtained between April 2006 and April 2007, and the other is based on the same period of the previous year. According to the embassy's analysis, the number of UK citizens admitted to hospital in Greece has fallen, by around a third, to 602; and the number of British deaths fell too, by eight to 131. Statistics specific to Zakynthos are hard to track down, yet it's no secret that there have been a worrying number of allegations of sexual assault. While results from the same FCO report state that the number of rape allegations made by Brits in Greece as a whole fell from 48 to 28 the following year, Zante State Hospital announced that 25 ("largely unproven") allegations of Brit-on-Brit rape were made on the island in 2007. This year's statistics have not yet been revealed – and besides, as Jess Prasad, who heads the Foreign Office's Know Before You Go information campaign notes, "you're not going to get a true picture because so many people don't report [instances of rape]. This is only the tip of the iceberg."

But however confusing the numbers, the situation does not look good from the ground either. According to one doctor working in Zakynthos, whose job it is to examine rape claimants, many women are so inebriated that they do not know whether they have had sex that night or not. It all makes for pretty grim reading, but there is a faint silver lining. Measures are now being taken by British and Greek authorities to educate tourists on how to avoid danger when on holiday. So, officially at least, it now lies with the individuals to make their choices accordingly. But judging from a conversation on one internet message board, the warnings will well and truly bypass some travellers. "Have you seen any trouble in Laganas this year?" asks one user. "Plenty," another replies, "and it's fuckin' wicked mate!"